Wednesday, January 23, 2013

My Five-Star Bookshelf, Part Twenty-Two

Wallace Stegner, Crossing to Safety

Thinking about this novel takes me back to long summer days in the garden of our St Albert house and to the utter abandonment one experiences when reading truly outstanding books. There is a joy to reading certain books that only English majors seem to understand. This is one — such a gloriously beautiful book!

I had read some Stegner (The Big Rock Candy Mountain) in my twenties. And one of his short stories, too. I can't even remember now why I read Crossing to Safety, but I am so glad I did. Stegner has created breathtakingly gorgeous prose: the book overflows with sentences to re-read and cherish. It's a pity that literary tastes have changed such that writing of this calibre is only inconsistently valued today.

The book is also a compassionate examination of relationships, loyalties, and the gifts we receive. It follows the lives of two couples whose paths entwine when the men meet as young faculty members. One couple is glamorous and outrageous, the other quieter, subtler. We watch their lives advance together through happy and difficult moments. From this description, the novel may not sound very appealing, but the imagery, the storytelling, the characterization, and the prose itself are astonishing. Perhaps we want simply to watch lives like these unfold, or perhaps we long for close friendships like these; the chance to follow Larry, Sally, Sid, and Charity feels rare and special — at least to me.

From this novel I moved on to Angle of Repose, another masterful, award-winning novel. But I prefer Crossing to Safety. Whether it's the academic setting, the images of nature, the study of commitment, self, and identity, or just its seemingly effortless craft, this book stands among my favourite reading experiences of the last decade. I hope you too will read it.

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